Cisco engineers’ careers depend on the evolution of CCNA certification

Cisco’s new CCNA certification isn’t the cure-all to ensuring engineers’ skills remain relevant, but it gets them pointed in the right direction.

Cisco engineers’ careers depend on the evolution of CCNA
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Every decade or so the IT industry goes through some kind of major transformation. Each wave of IT brings with it new technologies that drive the need for new skills and make other skills less relevant.

For example, I started my career at the very tail end of the mainframe era, so I knew a little IBM 3270 but my skills were deeply rooted in Unix and Windows. The company I worked for had a large team of IBMers that ate, breathed and lived Big Blue. None of those people accepted the fact that the world was changing and that it was time to learn new skills. Fast forward five years, and only a couple of the mainframe people were still employed at the company, and the Unix and Windows teams had grown by orders of magnitude.

+ More on Network World: Cisco retools core routing and switching certification to sharpen focus on SDN, IoT +

That type of thing has happened time and time again. Think of the transition of time-division multiplexing (TDM) to VoIP or physical servers to virtual servers. In most cases, the skills to do the old stuff don’t bridge the gap to the new world. Why? One reason is that the incumbent vendor rarely sees the market transition coming. In the world of computing, IBM never made the jump to Windows and was a minor player in Unix. In telecom, Lucent and Nortel were very late to VoIP and left their engineers hanging in the wind while Cisco ran over them. There are countless examples where this has happened.

I’m not saying that ensuring engineers are keeping up with technology trends is the sole responsibility of the vendor; it’s not. The individual must see the shifts coming, embrace change and actively seek retraining. It’s just much easier when the vendor that the engineer has worked with for most of his or her professional career and trusts helps make this shift. 

Digital transformation beginning

The industry is on the precipice of another major transformation, this time to the digital business era. Digital, like all other transitions, requires new skills. For many network professionals, Cisco has not only been the preferred way, but the only way. I’ve known many engineers who treat Cisco as a career path where one starts with basic administrative skills and gains more and more skills, culminating in a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification—the gold standard in networking today.

This week Cisco announced major changes to it’s entry-level certification program, CCNA for Routing and Switching, to align the curriculum with digital trends such as software-defined networking (SDN), analytics and Internet of Things (IoT). I won’t go into too much detail on the specifics of exactly what’s changed, as Ann Bednarz covered the news in her article, Cisco retools core routing and switching certification to sharpen focus on SDN, IoT, and Cisco’s director of product strategy and marketing for Cisco Learning, Tejas Vashi, wrote a blog post describing the changes.

What I will look at is the importance of this change in the certification program. I believe the CCNA for Routing and Switching is the most widely held certification Cisco currently has. While the company makes many products and has a number of certification programs, the bedrock of the company is routing and switching, so almost every engineer who works with Cisco has this in his or her resume.

In the past, engineers were trained on box-level things. Knowledge included how to configure the devices, manage them, upgrade software, make changes and other tasks. This device-by-device approach to managing a network worked in the past, but in the digital era, things need to happen with speed. In fact, a recent ZK Research Study revealed that almost 70 percent of business leaders are concerned that IT can’t change fast enough to keep up with the pace of business change.

New CCNA program

The answer isn’t to learn to type faster; that just leads to errors. Human error is the #1 cause of network downtime, according to a ZK Research data point, so trying to do the same thing faster would only lead to more unplanned downtime.

The new CCNA addresses this and puts an emphasis on skills required to run a network rather than configuring a box, since many of the tasks associated with that are now automated.

The revised program addresses the basics of programmable networks, including various types of controllers and the tools available to support SDNs. The certification isn’t looking to make CCNA-level engineers programmers but to help engineers understand the basics. Also, there’s emphasis on understanding how virtualized and cloud services interact with the network, something that hasn’t really been considered before. 

Cisco Learning Partners must adjust

The shift in skills is also something that Cisco Learning Partners need to consider. I’ve talked to a handful of engineers who have been looking to become educated in new areas, such as programming, data sciences and other skills required today. Many have told me they have had difficulty finding Learning Partners that have kept their curriculums up to date. It’s imperative that the Learning Partners adjust quickly to keep themselves current.

It’s critical that engineers, particularly those who are more senior, keep their skills current or they will find themselves in the same position voice administrators were in 20 years ago—on the outside looking in. The new CCNA isn’t the entire solution, but at least it gets the individual pointed in the right direction.

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